The child wives of drought stricken Marsabit

A newly married 14-year-old girl in Dukana, Marsabit County in this photo taken on September 21, 2022. With ravaging drought, households in this north-eastern county are trading off under age girls for three camels.

Photo credit: Moraa Obiria | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Sasra*, a 14-year-old is the newest “wife” in her village in Marsabit County.
  • On her right hand are four handmade silver bracelets; the first silver bracelet signifies that she is married and ready for the first child.
  • Marsabit County has not received rain for the past four years, leaving a trail of dried boreholes and died animals.
  • Engulfed in distress, last July,  Sasra’s father decided she was ripe for marriage.

As the hot sun descends on the dry brown pebbly flatland in Dukana, Marsabit County, so does the fetid smell clog the air. In sight are carcasses of camels, donkeys and goats. 

There are no roads here. Reaching your destination is all about the mathematics of probability. That is our compass but unfortunately, it leads us closer to dead animals; some rotten and others recently died.

As we left Dukana shopping centre, we had identified a manyatta (village) to visit. It appeared closer to a distant mountain. But on arrival after covering 10 kilometres, we discover it is just an illusion. The mountain is miles away. 

The drive is awful. We go in circles trying to avoid hitting the carcasses. It is sad seeing vultures feast on a donkey that had died under an indigenous tree. They have chowed down most of the flesh on the abdomen.

This sad news follows us to this village. As we drive in, two dome huts are conspicuously newly built on the left side, 150 metres away from the other huts.

They are roofed with fresh beige sisal and walled with new bright kangas.

“That is the home of a newly married girl,” Mohamed Abdi Guyo, a local, informs us.  He is also our translator for the day.

We park behind one of the huts.  A crowd of villagers, mainly children, girls and women, some breastfeeding their infants wrapped to their front, surround us.

Ravaging drought

The women chatter in excitement and one asks in Gabbra, “Have you brought us food?”

We can hear goats bleating weakly from inside the huts.

The women say those are the few remaining ones they are protecting from the scorching sun. They hope to receive some hay soon to feed them and save their lives.

Marsabit County is currently distributing hay to the local pastoralist communities, a mitigation measure to the ravaging drought that has left hundreds of cows dead.

Death is also lurking in the manyattas as people are getting weaker by the day.

Just like the Gabbras in this village, the Boranas, Rendilles and Burjis who make up the 459,785 Marsabit population, are purely pastoralists based on 2019 Census. It is, however, the largest county with 70,944.1 square kilometres.

Their wealth, source of income, and food lies in the livestock.

So whenever one dies, especially a camel, it’s like it leaves the head of the house, often the man, in huge debt that has to be paid.

Who’s to pay the debt? The daughter. Under-age daughter.

We meet Sasra (not her real name, given to protect her from any harm). The 14-year-old is the newest “wife” in the village. 

The new huts we saw earlier is her homestead; interestingly it’s less than two minutes from her parents’.

Four children

She has a mark of her new identity. On her right hand are four handmade silver bracelets. The first one is separated from the set of three with a multi-coloured beaded bracelet.

Mr Guyo explains that the first silver bracelet signifies that she is married and ready for the first child.

The other three are to encourage her to get more babies. While in total, the four silver bracelets mean that in her husband’s family, there are only four children.

Together with Mr Guyo, Sasra and her mother, we stand behind a neighbour’s hut facing her homestead. She is comfortable doing the interview here. She says her husband is away in the field herding.

Under her multi-coloured veil is a brown shawl, visibly soaked in dirt that her father gave her when she got married, her mother says.

She cannot remove it until she is five months old into her marriage, a cultural adherence symbolising a father’s blessing to his married daughter.

For all her years, she has never been to school and so she neither understands nor speaks Swahili, Kenya’s national language.  

Her work has been to look after her siblings, fetch water and firewood. Sometimes, herd her father’s livestock.

In this community, all livestock belong to the husband. Sadly, the stinging drought killed all his camels; he is only remaining with a handful of goats, the mother says. 

Marsabit County has not received rain for the past four years, leaving a trail of dried boreholes and died animals.

Three camels

Engulfed in distress, last July, Sasra’s father decided she was ripe for marriage, her mother says.

“He wanted camels,” she says.

“He got her a man; a young man, maybe 23-year-old. In exchange he gave him three camels,” she says as a shy Sasra bites her nails while staring into the space.

I ask Sasra how she is faring and how she feels about her new status. She hides her face in her palms and turns her back.

She giggles for a while. Then goes silent. She later turns her face and now covers it with the veil. Her response is typically that of a child, too young to be a “wife.”

I turn to her mother. I sought to find out if she doesn’t find her daughter too young to be married.

Her response is “What’s the problem? I was married at her age. At 14, she is old enough for marriage,” she lets out.

She adds that her daughter had been subjected to female genital mutilation (FGM) sometime earlier as it was the custom to prepare for marriage. She says, she was also initiated, and she sees no problem with her daughter going through the same.

Sasra is a representation of the 23 per cent of girls married in Kenya before they hit the adult age of 18 years, based on the most recent data from Kenya Demographic and Health Survey (2014).

Marsabit is one of the 23 arid and semi-arid counties ravaged by drought. With no hope to an end any time soon, more girls are at risk of falling through the cracks into child marriage. The prevalence is likely to widen.

Parkolwa Mustafa, Marsabit County drought coordinator for National Drought Management Authority, on September 19,2022 at the county offices. He warned of the looming rise in number of households in need of humanitarian assistance. M

Photo credit: Moraa Obiria | Nation Media Group

“The more the families affected by the drought, the more the girls stopped learning and married off to old men in exchange for cows,” says National Drought Management Authority (NDMA), Marsabit County Drought Coordinator, Parkolwa Mustafa.

He adds: “In Marsabit, FGM precedes marriage and the practice is seasonal but since the girls have to be suddenly, they break the pattern by cutting them at the point of need and give them away.”

Marsabit County received below normal short rains in the months of October, November and December in 2020.

“For four seasons now, the county has received little rain since the short rains in 2020 and the most affected areas are Laisamis, North Horr, Saku and Moyale sub-counties,” recounts Mr Mustafa.

Dukana falls in North Horr Sub-county, which the 2020 National Drought Management Authority assessment report shows received rain for five-14 days.

Particularly, Dukana received cumulative seasonal rainfall amounts of 93 mm.

Between July-August, 2022, there were 229,893 people in need of humanitarian assistance, the NDMA officer says.

This is a 36.03 per cent rise in number of affected families in a span of eight months. By last December, there were 169,000 needy cases, he says.

Without food, water, and pasture for the people and animals, the number is likely to grow beyond 252,000 by October, he warns 

“Most of the livestock have died and others have been moved to the neighbouring counties of Samburu and Isiolo. Others moved beyond the borders to Ethiopia,” he says.

Forcing a child into marriage is a punishable crime in Kenya with the Children Act(2021) awarding an offender a minimum of three years in prison or a fine of not less than half a million.

Article 53 of the Constitution protects the children’s rights to basic education, nutrition, shelter and health care.

It also rings fences their right to protection from abuse, neglect, harmful cultural practices, all forms of violence, inhuman treatment and punishment, and hazardous or exploitative labour.

With child marriage, some rights like going to school are blatantly taken away and the practice most times, opens the door for other abuses including domestic violence.

This is the reality for Nelio (name changed to protect her privacy and dignity). We meet her too, at Dukana manyatta. She, her mother, the translator and I move eastwards, some yards from the rest of the villagers. Her mother has back carried her six-month-old baby in a stained wrap.

It’s mid-morning and the sun is blazing overhead. We cannot sit on the bare soil since that means laying ourselves on a furnace.

“How old are you?” I set off the conversation.

She keeps quiet. Her mother responds by saying she is 17-years-old and recently married.

“She was in school. I don’t know what class but some months ago, her father pulled her out of school and married her off. Her husband gave him three camels,” she says as her daughter lays her head on her left shoulder.

Pregnant

“Many of his goats have died. He did not have money to pay her school fees.”

I sense the girl is uncomfortable, so I end the interview, less than five minutes into it.

From her facial appearance, she is pregnant. She has a chubby face and dry lips.

It is not any different for girls in Hurri Hills, 150 kilometres away from Dukana village.

“Here, we marry off the girls when they are 17 years old. At that age, they are old enough to be wives,” confirms Golo Adi, a member of Gabbra council of elders.

Ms B (she preferred anonymity) says she was married at a young age and she would not hesitate to do the same for her daughters because “that is how it has been and there is nothing wrong with that.”

She says her father found her a partner soon after she went through FGM.

The interviews of the girls, women and the elder, give insight into how a combination of drought, poverty, culture, and outright ignorance, creates a solid pivot supporting the continuity of child marriage.

As such, ending the practice begins and ends with collective solutions to these barriers.

Marsbait governor Mohamud Ali says he is aware that girls in his county are at the higher risk of child marriage during drought.

A trail of dead livestock at Hurri Hills in Marsabit County, due to the ravages of a prolonged drought. 
   

Photo credit: Moraa Obiria | Nation Media Group

He says although, his administration has not tracked the number of girls who have been married off during the ongoing drought due to the expansiveness of the county, the First Lady has continued to sensitise the locals against child marriage and FGM.

Reducing child marriage is possible.

South Asia has the highest rates of child marriage in the world according to United Nations Children's Fund.

Here, almost half (45 per cent) of all women aged 20-24 years are reported to have been married before the age of 18.

And almost one in five girls are married before the age of 15.

But a study by the agency in 2018, found an impressive decline over 22 years (1990–2012).

In Pakistan, for instance, in 2012, Balochistan had between 1.5 per cent and two per cent households with a married child but over the more than two decades child marriage rates decreased the most in the province, falling by between 2.5 per cent and 3.5 per cent.

The study attributes this decline to increased empowerment of the households.

The researchers found that “households whose members have higher average levels of education benefit significantly more from the economic growth than less educated households.”

The researchers, therefore, say that this “suggests that less educated households would benefit less from the local economic progress and are likely to respond more slowly to changing the way child marriage is practised.”

In conclusion: “Regions where child marriage is less prevalent, increased economic activity is associated with a decrease in the phenomenon. This is especially visible in Pakistan, a country with comparatively lower rates of child marriage.”

There are efforts toward empowering the locals in Marsabit. In September, a women and girls’ rights organisation, Plan International visited North Horr and Laisamis sub-counties to conduct a baseline survey into the effects of drought on the households. 

This would inform their interventions including launching a feeding program in local schools to keep girls in school, according to George Kamau, director of program strategy, development and innovation.

George Kamau, director of program strategy, development and innovation at Plan International, speaking about the effects of drought on girls at Hurri Hills in Marsabit on September 22, 2022. 

Photo credit: Moraa Obiria | Nation

This strategy has worked in Tharaka Nithi, Tana River, Kilifi and Kwale counties.

The organisation’s feeding program benefiting 22,595 children from grade 1- 8, has seen a drop in absenteeism and improvement in enrolment and attendance of boys and girls, says Plan International Country Director, Atieno Onyonyi.

“It has also reduced gender-related or geographical disparities. The challenge, however, is that there is no continuous school feeding when schools close for holidays or national breaks,” she adds.

 Meanwhile, Governor Ali has solutions at hand.

“The soils in Marsabit County are fertile, all we need is water. Our people also need to embrace agriculture. With boreholes in every village, residents will no longer suffer from lack of food. We will have plenty for all households,” he says.

But until that happens, more livestock will continue to die and the girls will be sold off to replenish the stock. And in the future when their daughters go through the cycle, they will be asking “What’s the problem?  I was also exchanged for three camels.”



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